16 August 2015

Way Too Literal

John 6:51-58

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
16th August 2015

Let’s stay close to three verses in order to track the conversation between Jesus and his hearers here in John 6.  The exchange is a good example of something that has plagued religious life for a very long time, perhaps even more so today.

Here we go.  The Revised Common Lectionary over the summer has been walking us through John 6.  Our reading today, starting at verse 51, enters a conversation that began earlier in the chapter, when Jesus refers to himself as the “bread of life” (John 6:35).  He compares himself to manna, to the bread given by God to Israel during their sojourn in the wilderness.  All those that ate manna in the wilderness eventually died.  By contrast, Jesus says, “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die” (John 6:50).  This, then, leads us to verses 51, 52, and 53.

Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (v. 51).  “The Jews,” that is, the religious leaders listening in on Jesus begin to quarrel among themselves and then ask, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (v. 52).  They’re perplexed, confused, probably scandalized.  “So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in him’” (v. 53). 

There we have it.  Three verses.  Jesus speaks.  The religious leaders respond.  And then Jesus speaks again.  But pay close attention to what’s happening here, particularly verses 51 and 52.  Jesus’ statement about being “living bread” and their perplexed response is significant.  These two verses, the exchange between them—focus here, zoom in here.  They seem to be talking past each other.  Jesus is trying to get a message across to them, trying to teach them something, show them something, but they don’t get it, they can’t hear it. Why is this?

Being the consummate teacher, the rabbi, Jesus offers them a metaphor (bread as flesh/flesh as bread) to help them discover something of God’s mission in his life.  He uses a metaphor to reveal the truth.  But the religious leaders don’t understand.  Why not? Because they’re being literal, too literal.  As religious leaders they should have been more familiar with metaphor, how it works, how it helps to convey truth.  Instead, they respond the way many religious people do, then as now, by being too literal.  And it’s because they’re being too literal that they miss the message.  They couldn’t hear it.  And then they become angry and begin to quarrel amongst themselves.  This, too, is often what happens when we’re being too literal, especially in the world of religion and spirituality; we become frustrated. 

Literalism often hinders us from encountering truth; in fact, literalism is one of the besetting sins of our day.  That’s how Owen Barfield put it (1898-1997).  English solicitor, non-academic philosopher, and devoted Christian, Barfield wrote an enormously important book titled Saving the Appearances: A Study of Idolatry, published in 1965; heralded as one of the top one hundred spiritual works of the twentieth-century.  Barfield said, “The besetting sin today is the sin of literalism.”[1]  Barfield was a close friend of C. S. Lewis (1898-1963).  Lewis penned The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe for Owen’s daughter, Lucy; he wrote The Voyage of the Dawn Treader for Owen’s son, Geoffrey. These are stories, as we know, full of metaphors.

Before we explore why it’s a sin, I should probably say what we mean by literalism.  Literalism is the belief, the philosophy, the attitude, the assumption that truth can only be found in exactness and certainty.  It’s an obsession (and it can be an obsession) with what is actual, literal, with the “letter of the law,” with the need to nail down (sometimes, actually) what is true and not true and then defending that “truth” at all costs. Literalism is a way of being and believing that seeks to maintain a tight “hold” on reality.  It’s a way of being that is suspicious (perhaps paranoid) of anything that smacks of analogy or metaphor, of anything that leaves open the possibility of multiple meanings, of plurality.  For the literalist there can only be one interpretation of a text, whether sacred (such as the Koran or the Bible) or secular (such as the U. S. Constitution), only one meaning, only one way to believe and one way to be in the world.  The literalist will take a metaphor and try to turn it into a thing, an idea, a historic fact.  Or, a literalist fails to understand the meaning of a metaphor because s/he is, well, a literalist.

What’s wrong with this?  Why is literalism a sin? There are times when we need to be very literal and factual and exact and concrete, especially if you’re an engineer designing a bridge or an airplane.  We all want our engineers to be literal and concrete.  But when it comes to the world of religion and spirituality, when it comes to God as subject, when it comes to the message of the gospel, when it comes to the world of the Bible, which is shot through with metaphor and symbol, if we approach the text and the story too literally we might then miss the message.  And this is why it’s a kind of sin because literalism separates us from the truth, separates us from the gospel, and separates us from God.

Literalism hardens our hearts and impedes our imaginations from encountering afresh God’s presence in the world.[2] It prevents us from approaching mystery.  It narrows by making the multiple into one; multiple meanings, multiple definitions, and multiple interpretations are reduced to one, monolithic meaning.  Literalism abhors the symbolic, the metaphoric, the “as-if” quality of words, of truth, of experience.  Literalism, when taken to its extreme, leads to fundamentalisms of all varieties, also associated with texts, with words and the meaning of words.  We see this particularly in religion, in fights over how the Bible or the Koran may be interpreted, which then leads to conflicts over ethics, morality, and competing worldviews. 

A contemporary of Barfield who also warned about the dangers of literalism was Norman O. Brown (1913-2000).  Scholar, classicist, Brown wrote, “The thing to be abolished is literalism.” And, as Brown insisted, the “alternative to literalism is mystery.”[3]  In our age we often assume that if we have a literal meaning of something, then we know more about it, the truth of what something really is. Sometimes people say that something is “just” or “only” a symbol or “just” or “only” a metaphor, dismissing their power to convey the truth.  However, ironically, an obsession with the literal actually blocks what can be known and obstructs our relation to mystery, and thus hinders the possibility of discovering what can be known.  As a result, a lot of the truth contained in the Bible is completely missed because people read it literally, instead of metaphorically or symbolically. 

James Hollis, a Jungian analyst and writer, reminds us, “The sacred is only knowable through experience and then made meaningful and communicated by the agencies of metaphor and symbol.”[4]  “Symbol,” from the Greek, symbolon, means to throw together.  Ideas, images are thrown together into a symbol and a symbol has power because it then points to something else, something beyond it, which gives it meaning. Think of the cross as symbol.  “Metaphor,” from the Greek metaphora means to carry over, to bear, to transfer meaning from one place to the other. 

Isn’t this what Jesus is doing with all of these references to bread?  Jesus uses a metaphor to make a spiritual claim to help move his hearers from one understanding of himself to another.  The metaphor carries us, bears us, and transfers us deeper into our understanding of Jesus.  Without the metaphor we take Jesus literally and then think we have to become cannibals in order to follow him, which completely misses the point.  Metaphor allows us to go deep, to have a more profound meaning of something, to discover what is not obviously available on the surface.  In many ways, Jesus is an enormous metaphor who carries and transfers meaning from God to all of us.

It’s easy (I think) to see why literalism is so dangerous and why the world and the Church are suffering, terribly, from it.  The literalist bent undergirds and stands behind the many expressions of fundamentalism (religious and otherwise) unleashing its toxic effluence throughout the public square and the Church.  The unmitigated fact is that reality is infinitely more complicated and complex than fundamentalists will acknowledge, actually more than they are free to admit. Literalism and fundamentalism are a form of bondage, the opposite of freedom.  It’s a defensive reaction against the ever-increasing intricacies and challenges of the contemporary world.  Fundamentalism and its bedfellow literalism have inflicted untold damage upon the world of religious faith, the very faith they say they care most about and try to defend and preserve.

So what do we do?  How do we reclaim the importance of metaphor and symbol?  How do we move away from literalist readings of a text? Perhaps we should first deal with the assumption that the Bible is a book of history, always giving a factual account of what actually happened in the past.  Yes, the Bible has to do with historical periods and people who really lived in history.  However, the writers of the Bible were not trying to give us historical accounts of what actually took place. They were trying to tell a story about God, about the world, about redemption, about hope. 
The contemporary New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan summed up the purpose of his life work in this way:  “My point is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.  They knew what they were doing; we don’t.”[5]
Northrop Frye (1912-1999), the literary critic and theorist, one of the towering intellectuals of the twentieth century, said, “When the Bible is historically accurate, it is only accidentally so: reporting was not of the slightest interest to its writers.  They had a story to tell which could only be told by myth and metaphor: what they wrote became a source of vision rather than doctrine.  The Bible is, with unimportant exceptions, written in the literary language of myth and metaphor.”[6]  Metaphor is one of the ways we get to the truth; it helps to carry us there.  When we read the Bible literally we’ve ventured over into idolatry, as David Tacey would say. “Literalism engenders idolatry and aggression and is the bane of civilization.”[7] 
Literalism is a serious threat to the health and vitality of the Church, of Christianity itself.  James Hollis suggests that literalism is actually a form of religious blasphemy because it seeks to concretize (nail down, define) and absolutize the core experience of the Holy, of God—a God (if God) who cannot be controlled or defined, a God who remains ultimately a mystery.  And a mystery, it’s worth saying (again and again!), is not the same as a puzzle (which can be solved); a mystery is always enigmatic and is therefore inherently unknowable.  A mystery cannot be solved and always remains a mystery.  We should not try to solve a mystery; instead, we kneel before it and bow and allow the truth of the encounter to shape us.
Humility of knowledge is essential whenever we attempt to make truth claims.  Thinking we comprehend the truth is a fantasy.  I’m not saying the truth doesn’t exist or that it’s completely inaccessible; it just means we need to remember that our “hold” on it is always elusive.
Hollis, a friend whose insight and wisdom I respect enormously, even argues that literalism is a kind of psychopathology in need of deep healing (redemption?).  Is it a personality disorder?  From his many years as a psychoanalyst he has come to see that a way to gauge mental health and emotional maturity is the degree to which one is able to tolerate what he calls the triple A’s: ambiguity, ambivalence, and anxiety.[8]  The ability to hold these in tension—and not escape into literalism and fundamentalism and other strategies of avoidance (such as addiction)—is a way to test one’s psychic strength.  I can certainly resonate with this.  The literalists (of all varieties) I have known and know—and love—and who at times drive me crazy have difficulty tolerating ambiguity, ambivalence, and anxiety—and sometimes for very good reasons.  However, they use their faith or relationship to a text or their political ideology to bolster themselves against, protect their fearful egos from, hide themselves from ambiguity, ambivalence, and anxiety that define the human condition.
So what do we do? Like every sin, confession is good for the soul.  Forgiveness and healing are possible.  Perhaps counseling and therapy are also in order.  This struggle is real and serious. The pushback from literalists is strong.  Several years ago I wrote a short article about the threats of literalism and I became the topic of several fundamentalist websites that took me to task.
Jesus offers us bread, he offers himself as bread.  He offers us a metaphor.  He gave us so many metaphors of himself.  We’re invited to play with them, imaginatively engage them, hold them gently, and not take them literally.  Metaphor is a gift, given to help us apprehend Jesus, fathom the meaning of his life, his message, given so that we can better digest what he has to show us and teach us and show us about the mystery that is God—not to categorically define Jesus or nail him down.  How we love to crucify our metaphors.  “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his drink, you have no life in him” (John 6:53).  So let us take and eat and drink.

[1] Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study of Idolatry (Wesleyan, 1988).
[2] James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology (Harper & Row, 1975), 149: “Literalism prevents mystery by narrowing the multiple ambiguity of meanings into one definition.  Literalism is the natural concomitant of monotheistic consciousness—whether in theology or science—which demands singleness of meaning.”
[3] Norman O. Brown in a response to Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) in his Negations (London, 1968), cited in Hillman, 149.
[4] James Hollis, The Archetypal Imagination (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2000), 42.
[5] John Dominic Cross, Who is Jesus? (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007) 31, cited in Tacey, Religion as Metaphor: Beyond Literal Belief (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2015), 16.
[6] Northrop Frye, Words with Power (Ontario: Viking, 1990), xiv, cited in Tacey, 17.
[7] Tacey, xi.
[8] Hollis, 63.

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